Thursday, 27 December 2007

Nothing new under the sun

The day was gentle and fair…. It was curiously quiet everywhere, not so much silent as hushed and muted. Although the West End pavements were packed with a vast multitude it was a subtly different crowd from any that the authorities had seen before. What had happened was that this most stately public show was being observed with an intensely private emotion…. As the coffin was carried in to the Abbey there was a sense of release…. After the funeral came the homage. In five days over a million people visited the grave and left a hundred thousand wreaths….

Ronald Blythe, The Age of Illusion: the burial of the unknown soldier in Westminster Abbey, 1920

But the worst outcry of this sort came after a talk on birth control by Julian Huxley and Cecil Lewis and was caused by a well-rehearsed voice breaking into the discussion, with a dramatic, ‘I protest… I never… It’s indecent… I protest!’ The discussion stopped, as though shocked, then continued as before. It was all a put-up job by a realistic producer, and when this came out the B.B.C. was loudly condemned for going in for such stunts. The Manchester Guardian likened it to a man who blacks himself all over to play Othello.

Ibid.: the era of Reith at the BBC

Friday, 14 December 2007

Inequality, three

Worries: can I really make this neat dividing line between unacceptable, absolute poverty that allows the people in it to be humiliated and acceptable, relative poverty? Brazil is a middle income country, after all. Our needs are socially defined. Perhaps it’s na├»ve to think that only some level of absolute poverty “forces” people to sell their dignity. If so, then the move from inequality to indecency to absolute poverty fails. Relative poverty would indeed matter. (Or I could just give up the strong feeling I have that buying people’s humiliation is evil; or I could punt this into the arena of social capital and civic culture, by saying that the problem was the video participants’ lack of self-respect.)

Worries on the other side: can I really neatly divide porn up into what’s acceptable although not my personal cup of tea – maybe even quite gross – and what’s bad and exploitative? I am uncomfortably reminded of that Chris Morris line from Brass Eye: “the amount of heroin I use is harmless.... But what about other people less stable, less educated, less middle-class than me? Builders or blacks for example.”

Inequality, two

Let's get a little more conceptual, staying with the video example.

Why should a convinced free-marketeer like me worry about inequality? Well, I believe in freedom of contract, but I cannot happily accept that one person can buy the ritual humiliation of other people before a global audience. (There is no freedom-of-speech, S&M roleplay, deconstructing-power-games context here, by the way. The context is purely commercial.) The problem, I think, is that this violates the basic respect for human dignity which, among other things, justifies human rights. These things would not exist in a decent society.

On the other hand, I do not want to say that the women who made this movie were misguided. (Basic idea behind rational choice theory: your objects of study are not stupid.) Instead I suppose that they were desperate. That leads me to think that the real problem with inequality is not the customer’s relative wealth, but the women’s absolute poverty. Most reasonably well-off people wouldn’t eat shit on video for a million dollars. (Some people probably would – humans vary – and I’m OK with that as a choice, I take my libertarianism about sex seriously. I’m not OK with extremely poor people being used as playthings.)

That in turn makes me think that the best remedy for “obscene inequality” is pro-poor growth, as fast as possible. As for the expensive cocktails, well, the vulgar new rich will be always with us, and with a bit of luck their children will found libraries.

Inequality, one

Inequality has crept back on to the agenda, witness the recent story about the £35000 cocktail.

For anybody who thinks “obscene wealth” refers to people richer than they are, here’s an anecdote. You know these artists who e.g. pay homeless Russians £25 to pose for nude photographs, thus challenging our ideas of, oh, fill in the blanks? One person, not an artist, just a guy on the internet, pushed this idea a little farther. He hired a bunch of Brazilian women and got a video made in which they spend a lot of time – there is no nice way to put this – eating their own and each others’ shit. He was not motivated by profit, he just one day decided to create an extremely degrading and humiliating video. You can read about it at, I won’t provide the link. The video is no doubt floating around the internet, and probably will be forever.
When I read this story, written in’s world-weary tone of voice, it made me viscerally angry and sad, which not many pieces of news do any more. But the important point is: the whole shoot cost about $500.

Wednesday, 12 December 2007

in memoriam Evel Knievel

... I had one of his toy motorbikes.

From the Independent obit: 'the Inland Revenue Service pursued him for many years claiming $21m in unpaid taxes. He told the IRS that if they sent anyone round to his house, "I'll blow his head right off his shoulders".'

Just took the pledge

The NO2ID Pledge - have YOU made it yet?

... what are you waiting for?

Tuesday, 11 December 2007

I could go on

Facebook. like it's 1999 and nobody's yet learned not to forward chain letters.

Facebook: the web's second childhood.


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